Court Rules that Anonymous Tip Insufficient to Support Seizure

Posted by Sean P. CecilApr 17, 20190 Comments

Cocaine and a gun should have been suppressed for a habitual felon, ruled the NC Court of Appeals this month, because the contraband was discovered as a result of an unconstitutional traffic stop. The Defendant in State v. Horton was stopped based upon an anonymous tip regarding a white male acting "suspiciously" and associated with a "gold or silver" vehicle. The defendant in Horton is a black man. During the evidentiary hearing regarding the defense motion to suppress the evidence, the arresting officer, from the Graham Police Department, testified that a business in the area had a break-in in the past and that there were previous residential break-ins and vandalism in the area. When the officer approached the vehicle (sometime after 8:40 pm), it was in a parking lot and moving toward the exit. The officer addressed the driver, who ignored him and continued driving. The officer followed and pulled over the car, despite not observing any bad driving or traffic violations. He testified that he "immediately smelled a strong odor of marijuana and air fresheners" and searched the vehicle finding marijuana in the center console at the defendant's direction. He also found several baggies of white powdery substance, a large amount of cash, and a stolen Sig Sauer 9mm handgun. 

The trial judge denied the defendant's motion to suppress the drugs and contraband, ruling that the officer had a "reasonable articulable suspicion" to justify stopping the defendant. When the justification for a warrantless stop (which is a seizure) is based upon an anonymous tip, the intrusion must be supported by "sufficient indicia of reliability" as determined by the court, considering the totality of circumstances. Absent corroboration of allegations in the tip, it can rarely support sufficient "reasonable suspicion" because, as the U.S. Supreme Court has held, “[u]nlike a tip from a known informant whose reputation can be assessed and who can be held responsible if [the] allegations turn out to be fabricated, an anonymous tip alone seldom demonstrates the informant's basis of knowledge or veracity.” Florida v. J.L., 529 U.S. 266, 270 (2000).

In a very thorough opinion, the Court of Appeals in Horton ruled that the information relied upon to stop the defendant was insufficient. The anonymous tip "reported no crime and was only partially correct" in that the defendant's race was misidentified. Describing the tip that the subject was acting "suspicious" as vague, the Court ruled that the evidence must be suppressed under firmly established "fruit of the poisonous tree" precedent. 

Many judges are reluctant to suppress evidence for constitutional violations. A solid record for an appeal (and to hopefully convince the trial judge) is essential, and experience matters. Our lawyers have experience successfully arguing for suppression of evidence discovered as the result of an unconstitutional intrusion upon our clients' privacy. Give us a call or fill out the form on our sidebar to schedule a free telephonic consultation regarding any Wake County criminal case.